China’s Uighur population – a distinct ethnic group living in the far western part of China – has reported years of oppression under Beijing’s assimilationist policies.
Millions of Uighurs, many of whom practice Islam and identify closely with central Asian nations, are placed into ‘reeducation camps’ by the government, reportedly to root out terrorism. The vast majority are forced to stay in the camps without trial and subjected to human rights violations such as forced labor.
Xinjiang, the region of China where Uighurs live, was put on lockdown with much of the rest of the country when the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) hit. With the gradual reopening of businesses and public places, some suspect the Uighurs may have disproportionately suffered during the interim.
In a video reviewed by Uighur activists, a man is shown being confronted by security during the lockdown for being outside, asking “what’s a person supposed to eat when they get hungry? What should I do, bite into a building?”
Officially, the government says Xinjiang saw only 76 coronavirus cases and three deaths. These numbers, however, are put into doubt by observers who claim the camps were likely breeding grounds for the spread of the virus.
As the news of the virus took hold, Jevlan Shirmemmet, a Uighur living in Turkey, contacted the Chinese embassy, asking what was being done to protect those like his mother who was still in Xinjiang. “You shouldn’t worry, the government is already paying attention to the prisons and the camps,” was the response.
Some Uighurs, however, still express deep skepticism. “According to my personal experience in the concentration camp, they never helped anyone or provided any medical support for any kind of disease or health condition,” says Sayragul Sauytbay, a former Xinjiang resident who was forced to stay in the internment camps. “If the coronavirus spread inside the camps, they would not help, they would not provide any medical support.”
Official stance while documents leak
Although officials say Xinjiang camps were largely unaffected, reports emerged in February that the virus was sweeping through prisons in eastern China, fueling speculation that similar institutions around the country were likely impacted. Officials of China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region describe any misrepresentation of the extent of the coronavirus in Xinjiang as “fictitious and ludicrous,” arguing that rumors were spread by those with political agendas.
In leaked Chinese government documents obtained by the New York Times in late 2019, officials allegedly disregard the wellbeing of minorities in Xinjiang, with President Xi Jinping reportedly ordering subordinates to show “no mercy” in the “struggle against terrorism, infiltration and separatism” in the region.
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